There are really just two blog posts that need to be done for Sri Lanka; one is about Ian learning to dive (YAY!) and the other is about our (brief) travels through the rest of the country. Since I want Ian to write about his first experiences underwater, I’ll tell you about the one week we spent away from diving and the beach. To be honest we might have never gotten past our second stop, in Unawatuna, if it hadn’t been for Ian getting an ear infection; so it was a bit of a blessing in disguise. Again, I’ll let him fill you in on all that.
After a bit of run-around, knowing it would be pointless to stay at the beach when Ian couldn’t go in the water, we made our way inland, up north to Sigiriya. There’s pretty much only one reason to go to Sigiriya, which is Sigiriya rock, a massive cylindrical formation that juts out of the flat land with a level top that has the (very few) remains of a royal palace. But mainly we went there because it just looked cool.
What was suppose to be a few hour journey north turned into an endless bus ride of stop and go due to construction on the only road leading to the town, which was shut down to just one lane. At one point we only moved six kilometers (sorry you’re going to have to do the conversion…or just trust that that’s NOT far at all) in one hour. It was so maddening that even the bus driver decided he’d had enough and completely ignored the poor traffic controller man trying to signal him to stop and let the other side through. While slightly nerve-rattling I can’t say that we weren’t ungrateful for his pushiness.
We got in so late the government buses were no longer running, so we paid an arm and a leg for a tuk-tuk, found an overpriced guesthouse, with a room full of frogs (no joke, there where five of them, which the husband of the couple running the place came in and scooped up with two plastic bags), ate some mediocre food, and called it a night.
Thankfully, the morning brought a fresh start. Sigiriya itself is spread out and sparse, spotted with guesthouses and roadside restaurants/convenient stores, temples and not one, but two big rocks. Sigiriya rock that’s shown in all the guidebooks and welcome posters at the airport costs 3,900 rupees to climb (Sri Lankans can go for free), that’s $30, or almost three nights stay, or a whole lot of food. But just next to it is another rock Pidruangala, not quite as uniquely shaped or covered with ruins, but high enough that it provides the same view as well as a view of Sigiriya rock itself, at the much more reasonable price of 500 rupees. And while busloads of tourists are constantly arriving to climb Sigiriya, we were only two of six people climbing Pidruangala.
Back roads of Sigiriya
We rented bicycles and wandered along the back roads until we found the modest temple that marked the entrance to the stairs/path of Pidruangala and made our way past a statue of a reclining Buddha, climbing on all fours up the last ledge, where we were rewarded with a beautiful view. We looked down on a sea of green trees spotted with small lakes, winding dirt roads, statues of Buddha and the occasional buildings. Back on ground level we sought out one of the lakes we had seen from above, and this time got a view of the Sigiriya and Pidruangala rocks side bys side. Feeling content that we had seen all Sigiriya had to offer we went home to our frogs and thoroughly enjoyed our drippy excuse of a shower.
View from the lake of Pidruangala (left) and Sigiriya Rock (right)
From Sigiriya we made our way south and then east, finally, FINALLY figuring out that all the other tourists had been getting around by train instead of government bus, and after the timely and comfortable journey, understanding why. We were all headed towards Adam’s Peak, a major pilgrimage site for Sri Lankans Buddhists, and a must for travelers. Adam’s Peak is the fifth highest mountain in Sri Lanka, standing at about 2,200 meters, and said to be where Adam took his first step after being cast out of Eden, or where there is a footprint from Buddha, or some other important person/god depending on your religion. The town itself has a cluster of guesthouses three small restaurants and a ridiculous amount of tchotchke shops selling plastic Buddha statues, plastic flowers, plastic bouncy balls, plastic anything.
The guesthouses were all plain, since they’re really just a place for people to put their bags, take a shower and rest their head for a couple hours. And I do mean a couple of hours. Most people climb Adam’s Peak in time for sunrise, which means starting the trek between 2-3 a.m. depending on your fitness level. While Ian and I have been active in terms of walking and biking around, we’ve also done a fair amount of lazing on the beach; so, to be safe, we decided to start the climb on the earlier side. As I mentioned, this is a pilgrimage, so hiking up the mountain in the middle of the night is not actually dangerous or scary because the whole route up is well lit, lined with tea shops which stay open, and equipped with stairs, over 5,000 of them…of varying heights, depths and condition.
Trying to stay warm in the “Last Tea Shop”
Feeling energized we powered up the mountain at an impressive pace, so fast that we had to stop for a couple teas so we weren’t forced to wait up at the top in the cold. When we made it to the “Last Tea Shop,” a hundred meters below the summit, we still had another hour before sunrise and the wind was whipping cold. I was bundled in sneakers, pants, and three layers on top, plus a scarf/hat thing and was still freezing, while Ian who had refused to listen to my warnings and was wearing shorts, a t-shirt (that he had to take off because it was dripping with sweat that was starting to freeze), a fleece, and a hat I had brought for myself but let him wear, was absolutely frozen. Sorry to call you out Ian, but in the immortal words of snotty kids and know-it-alls everywhere, I told you so.
A very happy Ian with some hot tea
Over the next hour people continued to cram in to the tiny shelter huddling with their friends for body heat. At some point we decided it would be better to move than to sit and listen to our teeth chattering so we hiked up 15 meters only to find that there was in fact another tea shop, more sheltered from the wind, and run by a monk who happily offered us tea and food without charge. We made the final climb just as an orange strip appeared on the horizon signaling the first signs of sunlight. We crowded in among the hundreds of Buddhists and tourists watching as the sun illuminated the lakes, hills and valleys that were hidden in the dark moments before. Fog rolled around the green hills below us as the sky turned blood orange replacing the dusky purple with pinks and oranges and yellows. Both Ian and I felt that making this climb was one of the highlights of our travels so far. For me it felt special to be part of something, what that something is I’m still a little unsure, but it felt like westerners and locals alike were silently encouraging each other on the way to the top so we might all partake in the spirituality, religious or otherwise, of the sunrise. For Ian it was a crucial “this is why I worked so hard and saved all my money” moment. In total awe of the natural beauty and the experience of climbing in the dark and then watching the sun reveal the landscape was an affirmation of why we were traveling.
Beginning our hurried descent
It was a beautiful sight…but beautiful or not, the need for a bathroom after all those teas to warm us up became a pressing matter. Ian and I started our way down the mountain stopping here or there to admire the incredible view that seemed to actually get better the farther we descended. Unlike normal hiking we couldn’t just go off the trail a bit and “pop a squat,” because for one thing there are hundreds of people around, and for the other, it seemed wrong to do at a pilgrimage site. So we all but ran down the steps, all the while knowing that if our bodies weren’t going to be sore enough already, they certainly would be now. Thankfully halfway down the mountain was a public bathroom, which meant we could take a slightly more relaxed pace the rest of the way down. With nothing else to do or see in the town, we showered, ate and caught the early bus down to the next town where we hopped a train to the beautiful hill town of Ella.
View from (almost) the bottom
The train ride to Ella is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and as we whizzed through endless green hills of tiered tea plantations spotted with clusters of leaf pickers, big baskets hanging off the backs of their heads, we could see why. The comfortable climate (hot during the day and cool enough for pants at night) and peaceful atmosphere in Ella were perfect for a day of relaxation after the climb and travel the day before. Well, to be honest, we couldn’t do much else that day; our calves were so sore from all the steps that we could hardly walk. Seriously, the idea of leaving the room and walking down the small hill to the main road for food or water seemed daunting…and painful. Never mind walking back up again.
While Ella is known for some of its hiking trails, neither Ian nor I were too keen to do any serious trekking, sore muscles or not. That said we couldn’t skip it completely, and we had to get our bodies moving if they were to ever work again. And so a couple days after climbing Adam’s Peak, we walked up the gentle slope of Little Adam’s Peak. Unlike its larger cousin there were no stairs or tea shops, no Buddhists, just a wide dirt path that wound through tea plantations and up providing panoramic views of Ella Gap, the valley between the hills that part of the country is known for. Ironically, we had to hurry down once again, this time because of Ian’s need for the bathroom…if you know what I mean. Having accomplished a major (in our minds) feat, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon reading on the terrace outside our room surrounded only by the sounds of birds.
The path through tea plantations
Relaxing and watching the afternoon showers
But after three more days of relaxing in Ella, and Ian’s ear feeling better, we were ready to get back to the beach; and more importantly, back to diving. So we hopped a bus that, as usual, went as fast as possible down the hairpin curves of the mountain road and through two lane traffic, back to the lovely Unawatuna. We had a week and a half before leaving for the Maldives and were excited to just settle in; no more buses, no more trains, no more large hikes…just a whole lot of diving with friends and relaxing.